Everything you have told me is true (book review)

I immensely enjoyed Mary Harper’s Everything you have told me is true-The Many Faces of Al Shabaab, even though her book covers difficult topics around Somalia’s troubled governance and Al Shabaab, an entity many would easily label a ‘terrorist organization’.

Mary Harper is the BBC Africa editor and has reported on Africa and its conflict zones for 25 years and her biggest achievement with this book is her nuanced, careful, critical and ultimately empathetic engagement with Somalia and her citizens. Her book is not about a ‘failed state’ that has been captured by a terrorist group, but about the fact that
Many people have multiple identities, one of which is some kind of association with Al Shabaab, sometimes voluntary, sometimes pragmatic, sometimes forced (p.5).
This may not be an entirely surprising insight for academic researchers engaging in qualitative or ethnographic field work or journalists with in-depth knowledge of the area. At the same time it is a reminder of how fragile contexts or spaces that have suffered conflict and violence over a long period of time deserve such a detailed, but also compassionate engagement rather than blanket terms that fit our Western governance and development agendas.
A whole industry has built around Al Shabaab. (…) The intense focus on Al Shabaab by journalists, academics and analysts has masked other forms of violence that continue to rip Somalia apart (pp.16-17).
Understanding Al Shabaab within a context of decades of violence, weak governance and global security discourses
In the introduction and first chapter of her book Harper offers some important insights into contemporary life and society in urban Somalia, featuring cities and inhabitants that have been traumatized by decades of violent conflict.
Harper
s impressive networks, built through many visits to Mogadishu but also trips outside the hotel-personal security-airport-expat bubble have provided her with opportunities to communicate directly with Al Shabaab between professional journalistic standards, respect from the group and close surveillance on the ground. When members call her and provide her with an incredibly accurate summary of her daily movements she is left to answer ‘Everything you have told me is true’.
In some ways, Al Shabaab is like water running down a hill, sometimes acting as a large, united force, at other times dividing into multiple rivulets, taking unpredictable paths and sometimes meeting dead ends. The fact that so many people have a loose association with the movement, flitting in and out of the group or performing certain duties on its behalf, makes it also impossible to define Al Shabaab (p.59).
In the following chapters she looks at women and children, the modus operandi, resistance, the propaganda war and finally the industry around Al Shabaab.

This structure really supports her quest for nuanced insights into various aspects of society and the best way to describe them is probably ‘written podcasts’-each chapter is vividly written, very well edited and features a compelling narrative on core aspects of the group and its engagement in Somalia.

Al Shabaab is not the answer to Somalia
’s many challenges-but can we ask better questions?
Even though her stories convey the great respect she has for the resilience of Somalis and empathy for sometimes impossible political or economic choices, Harper always makes sure to talk to both sides and highlight the atrocities, the terror if you like, that the group inflicts on citizens in their quest to establish a Muslim state. Al Shabaab is certainly part of the problem-but what is the ‘solution’ for Somalia and the influence the group has?
These questions go far beyond the Horn of Africa and also apply to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Mali.
Drone strikes, peacekeeping missions and EU aid to curb migration may be small pieces of the puzzle, but will not be enough to ‘win’ the ‘war on terror’ as per the global military-industrial discourse.

Even if the group is eventually defeated as a fighting force, it will be an enormous challenge to win back the hearts and minds of the hundreds of thousands of children who have grown up knowing nothing other than Al Shabaab (pp.83-84).
Al Shabaab is not an occupying military group and Everything you have told me is true is among its many merits a reminder how groups like this are interwoven into the social fabric of fragile societies:
Al Shabaab has taken hold in Somalia and endured because it has helped fill giant gaps in security, governance, justice, education and employment. In some areas of life it has offered the best choice available (p.233).
As regular readers of the blog may have noticed, I am a big fan of Hurst publications and this one is no exception!
Harper’s meticulous observations establish a thoughtful narrative about contemporary Somalia and the many complex questions about states and governance in the twenty-first century ‘we’ should be asking once we look beyond the many faces of Al Shabaab!


Harper, Mary: Everything you have told me is true-The Many Faces of Al Shabaab. ISBN 978-1-78738-124-7, 250pp, 20.00 GBP, London: Hurst & Company, 2019.

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